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Archetypes and Allegory in Beowulf

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“There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life. Endless repetition has engraved these experiences into our psychic constitution, not in the forms of images filled with content, but at first only as forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action” (Carl Jung). Carl Jung, whose study of the human mind resulted in his idea of a simple concept called archetypes, which were important when examining literature. An archetype is a pattern or universally understood symbol that is present in universal literature, and as new stories are created, similar archetypal symbols are displayed, sharing similar archetypes of characters, objects, and settings. In the epic Anglo-Saxon poem of Beowulf, translated by Burton Raffel, the beloved and famous land of Denmark, is terrorized by a notorious monster named Grendel. Beowulf, a man from Geatland who possesses great strength, sets sail to Denmark, hoping to aid the king, Hrothgar, and his people. Throughout the poem, Beowulf must embark on an adventure and slay several monsters and evil spirits along his journey. Thus, in Burton Raffel’s translation of the epic poem of Beowulf, a heroic man must save a society from destruction and torment by utilizing traditional, classic archetypes.

In Burton Raffel’s translation of the epic poem, the protagonist, Beowulf, displays characteristics similar to the knowledgeable, profound hero archetype, possessing superhuman strength. This hero, either a male or female character, possess a pure heart and kindness towards others and battles the antagonist to obtain something great value and give it back to its rightful owner. The hero may also have to venture on a quest and conquer an unexpected force of evil. In Beowulf, the hero archetype is given to Beowulf for his courageous personality, and his heart wanting to fight Grendel. He possesses superhuman strength and had “…drove/Five great giants into chains, [and] chased/All of that race from the earth. [He] swam/In the blackness of night, hunting monsters/Out of the ocean, and killing them one/By one; death was [his] errand,” (Raffel 248-254). Beowulf had fought off several villains in his past accomplishments, defeating the largest of giants, chasing after evil spirits one by one. and so battling another shall be a piece of cake. He shows off to King Hrothgar, the ruler of Denmark as if giving him a resume consisting of all his past accomplishments. He portrays himself as a fearless warrior, who is a force to be reckoned with, and due to his superhuman strength, he has been able to defeat numerous monsters before. Although Beowulf does not only possess superiority in his strength, he also displays an advantage in his intelligence. As Beowulf and his men enter Herot, the great mead hall of Denmark, Beowulf’s “Human/Eyes were watching his evil steps,/Waiting to see [Grendel’s] swift hard claws./Grendel snatched at the first Geat…” (Raffel 311-314). Before Beowulf runs into battle with Grendel, he waits. He watches from a distance, analyzing Grendel’s every move. He even lets some of his fellow men die before he even lays a finger on the beast. With his quick thinking and problem solving, he devises a plan to defeat Grendel and ultimately saving all of Hrothgar’s people. Thus, Beowulf’s qualities of superhuman strength and intelligence display him as the heroic figure archetype in the epic poem of Beowulf.

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In Beowulf, the villain archetype is given to the antagonist, Grendel. The terrorizer of the story. Throughout British and American literature, the villain or antagonist creates a scheme to steal a beloved item, and along the way, the villain also meets the hero, attempting to take down this villain. Grendel, “a powerful monster living down/In the darkness,” acts as a terrorizer of peace upon the village for many years (Raffel 1-2). Grendel had craved murder with no remorse for the lives in the mead halls and he “…relished his savage war/on the Danes, keeping the bloody feud/Alive, seeking no peace, offering/No truce, accepting no settlement, no price/In gold or land and paying the living/For one crime only with another” (Raffel 67-72). In Denmark, Grendel had brought terror to a peaceful place, Herot, by breaking and killing and eating all of Hrothgar’s people. Thus, Hrothgar’s kingdom and safe haven, Herot, had been crushed in a matter of minutes, leaving nothing but debris. Grendel had ruined and frightened everyone only because he wished to feel included. Thus, the antagonist of the epic poem of Beowulf, Grendel, displays characteristics of the villain archetype.

Throughout the epic poem, the conflict between Beowulf and Grendel represents light vs. dark archetype correlating to the feud between God and the devil. Light and darkness are closely associated throughout the poem, symbolizing the forces of good and evil, heaven and hell with some moments of biblical allusion. Human civilization, in the form of heroic warriors, is often associated with light and Beowulf, the hero, representing God’s grace attempting to save Hrothgar and his people. He is the heavenly figure that has come to bring prosperity back to Denmark. “I wish to give thanks, speaking such words as I may, to the almighty Ruler, the King crowned with glory, the eternal Lord, for these riches I look on here by the barrow, that I have been blessed to acquire for my dear people, before the time of my passing” Beowulf is speaking these words as he nears the end of his life after he has defeated the fiery dragon who guarded an ancient hoard of treasure. His praise of God reflects Christian values. But his words are also an incantation. Near the end of the poem the poet reveals that, because of an ancient spell, Beowulf would have been condemned to hell if he had not named God as the source of the treasure. Here and throughout the poem, the poet uses pagan story elements to convey a Christian message. So, darkness represents evil and hate, while light represents victory and heroism. Light is a universally known symbol of warmth, vitality, and purity. On the contrary, darkness is associated with despair, death, and isolation. Then there is Grendel who serves as the Devil. Grendel lives in the shadows, hunting, and waiting to feast on the naive. “That shepherd of evil, guardian of crime” (Raffel 325). Light’s symbolic qualities may be identified in correspondence to the mood of Herot Hall. Heron Hall is constantly filled with laughter and warmth as men enjoy each other’s company in the brightly lit area. While the rest of the town sleeps, the men of Herot Hall are bursting with life and movement. This presents a foil to the rest of the motionless town that is silent in the company of darkness. Another example of the foil between darkness and light would be the cold, isolated environment of Grendel’s home as opposed to the warmth of Herot Hall. Grendel’s home also represents the coldness and emptiness of his soul. Grendel’s lair is dark and gray, and he only hunts at night, in darkness. Thus, Beowulf, a symbol of God, venturing to Herot to save the people, and Grendel, killing symbolically represent God and the Devil. ‘They have seen my strength for themselves,/ Have watched me rise from the darkness of war,/ Dripping with my enemies blood. I drove/ Five great giants into chains, chased/ All of that race from the earth. I swam/ In the blackness of night, hunting monsters/ Out of the ocean, and killing them one/ By one; death was my errand and the fate/ They had earned. Now Grendel and I are called/ Together, and I’ve come.’ (Raffel 417-426)

Here, darkness is associated with Beowulf’s previous battles. He is brave and strong enough to enter the world of darkness to fight and conquer evil on its turf. He can bring peace back to a fallen land.

Throughout the epic tale of Beowulf archetypal images can be seen. Beowulf and the defenseless Herot and the cruel beast Grendel. 

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